James Gunn gets on the “superhero” bandwagon in this amoral answer to Kick-Ass.
Who made it?: James Gunn (Director/Writer), Ted Hope, Miranda Bailey (Producers), This Is That Productions/Ambush Entertainment/Crimson Bolt.
Who’s in it?: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion.
Tagline: “Shut up, crime!”
IMDb rating: 6.8/10.
A strange type of superhero movie emerged in the wake of their mainstream acceptance. They were all about normal people taking on the avenger mantle, and the consequences thereof. The most famous and successful of these was 2010’s Kick-Ass, but there were several others, such as Super and 2009’s Defendor. I enjoyed all three, so I don’t want to get into a “which is best” debate. But of all of them, Super is the one that caught my interest the most. It is the one that, at first, seems like nothing more than a dark subversion of the superhero genre. Yet, actually, it is a compelling drama in itself, and a great example of how to make a “super” movie on a limited budget.
The plot follows Frank (Rainn Wilson), a loser in life who has managed to end up with a beautiful, ex-addict wife. When drug dealer Jock (Kevin Bacon) steals her away and gets her back on narcotics, Frank adopts superhero identity “The Crimson Bolt” to reclaim her. However, his lack of athletic prowess combined with a mental illness don’t make him the textbook caped crusader.
If you had to force Super into a sound bite, a good one would be “Kick-Ass as directed by Todd Solondz.” It’s an incredibly dark film and one that suggests humanity is in a real state. Everyone is unfriendly, the cops don’t seem to care about crime, and drug dealers rule the streets. The central themes of the film drive this world forward, and it’s hard to watch Frank suffer so much. A devout Christian, he endures terrible hallucinations that fuel his desire for revenge. There is very little for him to be triumphant about, even when he becomes the Crimson Bolt. This is one of the harshest “nice guy with terrible luck” stories ever put to film. As he states at one point, even starving African children have parents that love them.
And be warned – this film is incredibly violent. Honestly, you might be surprised by the level it goes to. The gore is strong and lingering, the fates of certain characters are extremely unpleasant, and some of the moments are genuinely shocking. Anyone who has seen the movie will wince at the words “movie queue” and “mantelpiece.” But this isn’t just sadism for the sake of it. The nastiness of the violence is a crucial part of the narrative. We are not meant to sympathise with Frank in his crusade, and we see what happens to those he attacks in exacting detail. When violence occurs, there is no sense of triumph; we see the results, not just to the victims, but in the screaming reactions of the crowd. No matter how justified Frank thinks he is, the Crimson Bolt deals in murder and assault. The fact he lives in such a fantasy world makes it all the more disturbing. The plot doesn’t stray from bringing out his mental illness, and though we are on his side, it is with some hesitation.
This would make Super a surprisingly heavy watch if there wasn’t a proper superhero story underneath. The film ticks all the boxes for a comic book fan; we see his horrific conversion, getting his costume, his weapons, and his sidekick. There are baddies to be vanquished and good to be fought for, as well as claims of vigilantism to fight against. Despite the more depressing elements, it’s a fairly simple story that stops the film from getting too self-indulgent.
In terms of production, Super is a brave undertaking for the cost of only five million dollars. There are points when the quality swings, and some of the lighting in certain sections is a bit ropey. But, at the same time, the effect achieved for the budget is astounding. The gore and hallucinations clearly swallowed a big pot of the cash, but the money is clearly on-screen. One area that doesn’t scrimp is the acting. The supporting cast had a superlative track record; Bacon, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Michael Rooker all make an appearance, and all are superb. Their brief stories bring a humanity to the piece that stops them from becoming necessary genre clichés. But the film revolves around Wilson, and he is certainly up the challenge. Those familiar with his Dwight Schrute character from The Office USA will see the basis for where his character comes from. However, there is so much more to him in this movie. Wilson manages to bring a huge range to the character, and he goes from pathetic to terrifying to dominant without faltering. This elevates the movie to Hollywood standards, and everyone has their own personal agenda to make the world presented more believable.
What this means is that the film manages to explore the superhero genre in a novel way. I’ve commented on how Alan Moore uses the troubled Rorschach in Watchmen, and this is a similar dynamic. Deciding to fight crime with direct violence, especially if you don’t have super powers, is a huge undertaking and one with massive repercussions to you and your victims. In real-life it would be indefensible, and the main hardship you would face is living with your decisions.
Super is a fascinating little gem of an indie film. It shows what you can achieve on a limited budget with a strong enough script and cast. Why it works so well is because of the balance it achieves between cynicism and genuine love for the superhero genre. It finds much to mock about modern American society and the notion of practicalities and heroism, without getting in the way of the plot. For movie fans, not just superhero ones, it’s worth watching to see what can be achieved with the genre via more demented minds.
You’ll never butt in line ever again after seeing this.
- Rainn Wilson came to the project via Jenna Fischer’s relationship with her ex-husband James Gunn. Gunn was discussing his script with Fischer and asked her to take a look at it, sending her a copy on the set of The Office. Fischer read the script, loved it and thought Wilson would be a great choice as the lead. She gave the script to her co-worker, and Wilson immediately decided to make the film.
- Ellen Page’s character Libby (“Boltie”) uses metal claws like Wolverine. Page played Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand. At one point in the comics, and during the alternate reality of the Age of Apocalypse, Kitty Pryde uses metal claws as part of her costume just as Boltie does.
- Towards the end of the movie when Liv Tyler is in her rehab group session, she is heard stating “fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.” This is a reference and nod to her rocker father Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith) and his 1980’s song “FINE” which is an acronym for the same line.
- Gunn has been selected by Marvel Studios to direct Guardians of the Galaxy.